I had failed in a summit attempt of Mt. Rainer in July. So when I had an opportunity to go to Colorado that October I figured a solo attempt of an easy Fourteener might help assuage my bruised ego. I would not allow that failed attempt on Rainier to define my wilderness experiences.
Humboldt Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado is 14,064’ high. It is the least challenging climb of the Crestone group of Fourteeners which include Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, and Kit Carson Peak. Despite the rather impressive north face of Humboldt Peak, the standard route is considered an easy climb. It is not much more than a hike along a decent trail with some minor rock scrambling (Class 2) near the summit and is recommended for those just beginning to climb the Fourteeners.
My camp at upper South Colony Lake, elevation 12,000 feet, was surrounded by massive fourteen thousand foot peaks making the lake feel like a teaspoon of water cupped in the palm of God. Not surprisingly the lake was frozen. A skiff of fresh snow dusted the ground. The dry summer grass was brittle as broom straw under each booted step. It was quiet. No running water at the outlet. The birds were not singing. The pikas had grown quiet for the winter. The sound of my footfalls might have carried across the ice of the lake to echo against the cold granite face of Crestone Needle. The camp stove clanged metallically as I pumped it, the sound foreign in this organic landscape. The thermometer dangling on my pack like a cheap earring said twenty-five degrees. I would have to break ice off the lake and melt it on the stove for cooking and drinking water.
My shelter was a gray tarp stretched in an A-frame using my trekking pole for support. This way I would be able to look out into the black night sky. The sun dropped behind Crestone Peak. As sunlight faded frigid air imposed itself with a heartless aggression. The thermometer read fifteen degrees. Dressed in all of my fleece clothing, I wormed my way into my twenty year old bag hoping it still had enough loft to keep me warm. I took my water bottle filled with heated water into the bag with me to help keep me warm and so I would have liquid water for breakfast in the morning. Finally, I lined my bag with an emergency reflector blanket to trap any escaping heat. When I turned onto my side to look out the open end of my lean-to, the silver shroud crinkled like cold cellophane. But at last I was warm.
My breath hung before my face in a gauzy haze, blocking my view of the darkening sky. Breathing inside my bag for the added warmth also improved my ability to see the stars as they slowly brightened against the blackness of deep space. I stopped shivering and only my nose, still seeking air like a turtle under water, was cold. Stars shimmered now. Streaks of angel-hair light trailed behind a shooting star. The thin air at 12,000’ combined with the absence of ambient light caused the stars to pierce the darkness with laser-like intensity. I think cold air magnifies and sharpens the starlight like shards of glass. I love night skies above tree line. They remind me of the depth of the universe and the immensity of a Creator-God who flung them into that ancient firmament.
The next morning the peaks were awash in the crimson alpine glow that gives these mountains their name. Warm light slid down the cliff-wall towards the lake and I decided to wait for its arrival at my camp before getting out of my comfortable cocoon. Breakfast was fast and hot. Coffee was bold and strong. I loaded my pack quickly and set it aside in some scrub willow brush. I packed emergency provisions in a day pack and headed up the shoulder of Humboldt. The cold air burned my lungs as I pushed up the trail towards the saddle linking Humboldt with Playground of the Bears, a large five-acre parcel of flat ground connecting Kit Carson Peak with Crestone Peak. At the saddle I rested and enjoyed the view of the frozen lakes a thousand feet below. The power bar was too stiff to eat and I moved it to an interior pocket so my body temperature would soften it.
Rested, I set out for the next two thousand feet of gain on the ridge of the mountain. The wind began to blow up North Colony Canyon, so I had to climb leeward of the ridge in order to stay warm and to maintain my balance on the boulders. The wind must have hit thirty miles an hour with gusts blowing harder still. Craggy granite boulders tore at my wool gloves as I searched for handholds; the air was so cold it felt brittle.
The mountain is simple to climb. Just put one foot in front of the other. In some ways it is like working out on a stair climber. I remembered taking my oldest son, Cole, up this mountain when he was twelve and loved the way he described the mountain. He said, “It is like climbing a giant ant hill.” Maybe, but those ants were deep underground out of reach of this cold.
I tend to measure myself in life based on how I perform in the wilderness. If I fail to accomplish a goal in the mountains I usually go back into the wild as soon as I can to flush my system of the failure. It is like a poison that needs to be purged. When, through arrogant leadership, I nearly caused a major emergency on Broken Hand, I came back to the same mountain a few weeks later to climb it and re-establish my dominance. Only that time when I got to the mountain I decided to do something even more difficult, climb Kit Carson Peak for the first time. After successfully summiting Kit Carson I walked by Broken Hand and said out loud, “I came back here to kick your butt; I decided to kick your daddy’s butt instead.”
And now on this mountain I was trying to make up for my failure on Rainer. On this day, on this easy mountain, I was climbing solo in October. I was over fifty and feeling compelled to prove to myself, to the mountains that I still had the will to conquer large mountains. I was still a mountain man; still a bad-ass dude that still had what it took to make it in the wilderness. That was why I was freezing on the side of this ant hill.
Stepping from a wobbly rock I lost my balance and my leg got wedged mid-calf in a deep crevice just under the summit. I might be on an easy mountain, but the conditions I had put myself in ratcheted up the risk factor. The thought sobered me, I needed to pay attention. Pulling my leg out of the crag, I examined the scrape, wiped the blood and took care where I stepped as I topped out the mountain.
I made note of the triumph in my journal and leaned up against a large stack of stones encircling the geological marker placed by the U.S. Forrest Department. Right in my face was the fourteen thousand foot triumvirate to challenge and dwarf me. After scribbling self-congratulatory entries I wrote this question in my notebook: What kind of old man do you want to be?
I have opted for growth and grace as my old-age lifestyle.
I asked God for a rebirth of spirit and mind on that mountain and found a wonderful liberation. Liberation from feeling I always had to be right and had to please everyone’s definition of what it means to be a man of God. Liberation from having to be more successful this year than last, from fearing that some people wouldn’t like me; a slow and certain liberation that said, “Be content to be a pleasure to Jesus, a lover to your wife and a grandfather to your children’s children, a friend to those who want to share life with you, and a servant to your generation.”
Some of that freedom came from the grace and kindness of Jesus and also from having to clean up after a failure in my personal life. Those who know me now know my worst moments, my most embarrassing failures. I was free now to open my life and be what I was: a sinner who survives only because of the charity of Christ.
With every step down that wind-swept ridge I felt the surge of vitality in my soul. I would descend with a new understanding of my place and my pilgrimage towards being the man God dreamed up before He flung the stars into the obsidian sky.
Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose…so that you may… shine like stars in the universe…”
Philippians 2:12 and15